Writing Effective Employee Performance Reviews

Employee reviews have two purposes: to summarize and evaluate the employee's performance over a set period of time and motivate them to continue doing good work or grow stronger in areas where they're weak. At one time or another, we've all walked away from our own review with the feeling that the process wasn't all that helpful. So how do managers learn how to write employee reviews that are more effective? It starts with how you structure the employee performance evaluation itself.

The Goal of Employee Reviews
The purpose of employee reviews isn't to demoralize employees or shame them into upping their game, but it sometimes feels that way-so it's no wonder that many managers and employees alike dread this process. Contrary to some beliefs, the process isn't designed to pigeonhole staff or justify a meager raise however, in order to convince employees that the process benefits you both, you've got to do a little more work than just checking a few boxes.

The primary goal of employee reviews is to provide a tool for managers, supervisors and staff to use together to identify strengths and weaknesses, measure and set goals, and address training, education and other programs that encourage career growth for individuals that also benefits the company. It's your job, as the reviewer, to help change your employees' perception of the review process by making it an interactive dialogue instead of a required talking to.

Structuring Your Employee Reviews

How effective your employee performance reviews will be begins with taking a look at how the form itself it designed. Employee reviews focus primarily on performance issues that relate directly to the job in question. Depending on the number of people you manage, it's possibly you'll be evaluating different responsibilities for each employee. Does this mean you need to have a customized employee performance appraisal form for each person? No, but it does mean you should create a review template with some customizable fields so you tailor the process to the individual.


A well-designed employee review is made up of three distinct sections:

  • General job performance, which includes tardiness, absenteeism, adhering to general company policies, ability to take clear direction and working well with others.
  • Specific job responsibilities in the form of a list or a reiteration of the formal job description the employee is held to.
  • Goal setting, which helps you, along with the employee, to identify any areas where improvement is needed along with an action plan and timeline, as well as any new goals you'd like to motivate the employee to achieve. This section can also be used to evaluate how the employee has responded to goals set during his or her last review.

The Rating System
In order to maintain consistency across employee reviews and minimize the chances that personal judgments might affect the review process, you'll need to establish a ratings scale and guidelines for grading employee performance. In some cases, different sections of the review may be more effective if they have their own ratings scales and definitions versus using the same scale in each section.

The most common rating scale is numerical, from 1 to 5 where 1 indicates poor performance and 5 demonstrates the employee has exceeded expectations. What the employee's performance relates to and what expectations were set for the performance will based on his or her job description and previous goals being measured.

It's critical that the review process clearly defines what's required to earn each individual rating. In other words, what constitutes poor, fair, good, above average and exceptional if those are the definitions that tie back to your 1 to 5 scale. This information should be communicated to the employee during the review meeting so both of you have the same understanding of what the numbers mean.

Evaluating General Performance
Keep your company's general policies or employee manual close by when you evaluate an employee's general performance. These documents will provide you with key information pertaining to the areas you're evaluating and also help you determine how the grading scale applies to each area.

For example, if your company has a policy on tardiness, the manual will define what constitutes being tardy, how many tardies will be tolerated and what, if any, disciplinary actions will be taken when the allowance is reached. Be sure to take into account any extenuating circumstances, but also that your review of the employee's performance in that area isn't more lenient than general policy or more severe than disciplinary actions that have already been taken.

Evaluating Job Performance
When you're evaluating employees in relation to their specific job functions, be sure you've reread their formal job description so you don't overlook any responsibilities or tasks assigned to them. List each duty or responsibility or, if you're working with employee performance review software or another template, use a blank box for each. If there are additional projects the employee has taken on outside their job description, include them here, either in list form or addressing them in an area marked for additional comments.

Next, you'll write a brief summary of the employee's performance in each area. Try to keep it to one to two sentences. The objective is to be as general as possible, because you'll follow up that statement with specific details that support the claims you've just made. If you said, for example, that the employee didn't meet their quota, you'll need to clarify whether that was consistent throughout the year, a trend that started in the second half of the year or an in isolated month. If there are additional factors that contributed to the missed quota-high absenteeism, a change in economic conditions, the loss of a key account-include those as well. Not all failures to make goals rest solely with the person doing the job.

Whenever possible, address issues positively and offer solutions. Don't focus on what Jack didn't do that he was supposed to. Rather, state that if Jack had received additional training in X, he may have come closer to achieving Y-and then put a plan into place that helps Jack get that training.

Next, take the time to reread what you've written and then walk away from it for a day or two. When you come back to the review, read it again and then rate the employee's performance using the scale you've been given. Taking this time gives you a chance to reflect and ensure you're basing the review on the facts, not on any personal feelings, good or bad.

Identifying Strengths, Weaknesses and Setting Goals
In the last section of the employee review you'll summarize the employee's overall strengths and weaknesses with an eye on using this information as a motivational tool. Be sure you've scheduled enough time to discuss this portion of the review with the employee and if you haven't, schedule a follow-up meeting-this is the section where previous goals are revisited and new ones are set. It's also where any actions you can take as the employer-sending staff to seminars, for example-should be included.

The goals you set for your employees should be aimed at helping them meet or exceed the expectations and standards set for their job. These goals should also take the employee's overall performance history into account. Employees who perform well, should be asked what more they think they can achieve as well as what support they might need to achieve it. Conversely, employees who may be struggling or just getting by should be asked what they need to do their jobs better.

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